For nearly 30 years one of the most successful womens basketball programs in the country has been headed by Scioto County's own Robin Hagen-Smith.
Hagen-Smith and winning have been constants for SSU and while not much has changed on the court since 1983, much has changed for the coach. Last month the mother of two girls was diagnosed with breast cancer.
On Jan. 6 I sat down with my former coach to ask about her career, her family, her health and her future
Q: Let's start with your team this season, in your 28th year as head basketball coach of the Shawnee State women. What stands out about this year's team?
A: Probably the expectations that we started out with and the players that we lost. The whole situation, not just with the two seniors but we were really counting on Shy Johnson to come in and she transferred to Depaul University. And then Bianca (Barton), a point guard, dislocated an elbow and she is going to red shirt. She is done for the season.
So, we had a pretty good nucleus coming back with Ali Meyer, Jill Cropper, Mallory (Albers), and Whitney (Williams) but Abby Ballman has taken the bull by the horns. We recruited her to play the three and she has played the one through four for us up to this point. If she's not our point guard, and a backup at that, then we're not even competitive.
Q: This being the university' s last year in the American Mideast Conference, is that an extra incentive for this season... to go out with another AMC title before joining Mid-South Conference?
A: Well, it would be nice. But that's our goal every year, to win the AMC. When you have that great tradition, you don't really have a choice. You are expected to be on top your opponents. They pick you in the preseason poll. So, you know, we just try to get the best out of our players and get us to the point, especially in the end, where you are the best you can be.
Q: How does the Mid-south compare to the AMC when it comes to women's basketball?
A: Much more competitive. Tougher teams from top to bottom. The travel is much better, not the New York trips, the eight hours trips or the four hour trips to Canton, which will be nice. But it's going to be a lot tougher to get wins, I think, and do what we have done in the past.
Q: A year ago, the 08-09 Bears put together a perfect 30-0 regular season mark. It was the first undefeated season for your program. Where does last season rank among your other seasons?
A: It was big, but we really didn't talk about it until it got to those last couple games. And even then, we were just focused on one game at a time. It means probably more now then it did then because your caught up in just trying take each game at a time.
A perfect season is something you never set out (to do)... That's almost unrealistic.
The depth that we had... coupled with all that talent— (Becky) Babione being (AMC) player of the year and what Kelly Wagner, as a senior, did. You've got Cropper coming off the bench.
We just had talent, depth and everything you wanted in a team. And looking back on it, it was really neat. You're in the middle of making history and don't even think about it until it hits that day.
Not many teams across the country can say they had a perfect season. It was pretty amazing.
And I really appreciate it more now, just like a lot of the other seasons. Because you're so close to it when it happens.
Q: I'm sure no season has yet surpassed the 1999 National Championship year as the "best season"... is perfect regular season of a year ago the runner-up to 1999 or would it be another year?
A: I think last year's season because I really thought we had a chance to, I won't say win it all, but it was up there. Just, all the hype... We were number two in the nation the whole year. I really felt like we had the best team since '99 to take out there (to Sioux City). Just knowing that it was in the making, that there was that opportunity that we possibly could make it to a Final Four or another (championship game). It was exciting.
(Last season) did, it ranked up there at the top.
And the Final Four team... That was pretty special too. Because we never been able to, with all the success we've had, still we haven't been able to break that Elite eight. I mean, there's only been those two times.
Q: It just seems that you really know how to get the most of out your players as athletes and as students. What's the secret?
A: It is the recruiting, selection process because we can be pretty selective at this level. And we not only want good basketball players but you know, how are their grades? Those go hand in hand. I check on that simultaneously.
I try to do the homework ahead of time, to see what kind of people they are.
We'll take chances on a few kids here and there, but we hope that those kids can learn from the ones who are setting the tone and are really serious about it.
So it all comes back to the recruiting process and getting those right people in system that do get good grades and are good people.This class that we had (in 08-09), even the national championship team, had five Academic All-Americans. We had five last year and we'll have five again this year — Meyer, Albers, Cropper, Williams and Guthery. That's a 3.5 GPA and above, that's almost unheard of to have that many (Academic All-Americans).
Q: What is it about basketball that hooked you when you were young and inspired you do all that you have in this sport?
A: When I was in the third grade my uncle was a basketball star at South Webster (High School) and I would go to all the games. My other uncle, on the other side of the family, was the basketball coach. So, we took in a lot of games.
Plus my uncle that played was the star. He was like the Brett Roberts of his time.
One night he scored 49 points in a game, when the 3-point line wasn't even in existence. I remember sitting there and the fans were talking about 'Rose is going to get fifty tonight.'
It was just an unbelievable performance.
Everybody in South Webster was there. It was positive, a great experience. He was getting a lot of attention. I thought 'man, I'd like to do this.' I just loved the game.
I would go down on the court, he would practicing. I would just go down on the other end and watch him. I would try to mimic what he was doing. I was like a third or fourth grader and I just kind of picked it up. I loved all kinds of sports when I was young.
The people in my life, my role models besides by parents, they were teachers and coaches. They were just good people. They weren't rich but they were just good, good people.
They were inspiring and motivational to me. I thought 'well heck, this might be a good field. It's been good to them.' My aunts were teachers, my dad was a teacher and that's who I hung around with. That's what I knew and I just followed that path.
Q: Gregg has been the long-time assistant coach in your program. With all the successful seasons you have had as a head coach, it must be special to know that it literally has been a team effort?
A: He's been with me 26 of the 28 years (of coaching at SSU). He was (coaching) baseball at South Webster and then we got married.
We felt like it probably wouldn't be good on our marriage, both of us coaching (separately). So, when he started helping, he never looked back.
He's been as much a part of all of it as I have— the recruiting, the scouting, the strategies, the practice. Things that a lot of people don't even know about.
He never gets the credit, but he's not that kind of a guy. He not in it for that obviously. He has never wanted that. He likes where he's at. And like he says he doesn't want the blame.
But there's not been a whole lot of blame, there's just been a lot of good stuff.That's another reason for all our success to, the people we have had on staff.
Q: For a couple of years now the rumor that you might soon retire has come up. Any truth to that rumor?
A: I have been thinking about it more. Mainly because of our kids.
Ali is starting to be more involved with basketball and I want to be there for her as much as my parents were there for me.
You know I have done my thing. I mean I'd definitely like to win another national championship but it's not about it.
And that's where (retirement) gets a little tricky and challenging. We're getting older and just the energy level that we have, I want to devote it to the children.
So I don't know. I'm just really taking it a year at a time. It really hard to break away or even think about it. But I just keep doing what I'm doing.
I have passion for it. I love my job. I have a great job. I enjoy it. It is just hard to do everything to the best of your abilities it is just hard when you have so many priorities.
Q: A recent health issue is now part of the equation. When were you diagnosed with breast cancer?
A: On Dec. 7, I was diagnosed with breath cancer, stage one. They found it through a mammogram, and then a biopsy that was done a day before Thanksgiving.
Thank goodness it was stage one and there is a very good prognosis. It is overwhelming the information you get and the decisions you have to make.
I'll be starting radiation very soon. In all honesty I don't know how it's going to effect travel and different things like that.
I have to put coaching aside and we have to think about what's best for me and our family. But as of right now, I don't have to take chemotherapy. Which is huge.
But I feel good, my energy is good right now and I just pray it will all work outs. And we'll kind of just have to wait and see.
We are going to do the "Pink Zone" on Saturday January 23 (SSU hosts Malone). That's taken on a whole new meaning for me now.
I have coached all these women and one out of eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. I just look at every team and think two (players) or their mothers or grandmothers, aunts...
At first I was thinking, I'm really a private person, I'll just keep this within my family. But every time I would go to the hospital or go to have a test... even some of the students that I taught would be looking at my charts and examining me. (They would say) 'hey, I had you in health class.' So, it was just out there.
And I'd see people going into the hospital (and they would ask) 'hey, what are you here for?' I found out that day that I can't hide it.
And not that I'm embarrassed by it. But hey, let's just put it out there and let's get women to be more aware. Have your mammogram, get checked out. Do what you need to do. Take time out because women, especially when they have kids, put themselves on the back-burner. Everything is about their kids and everybody but themselves. And I'm guilty of it too.
I was feeling good and I missed some times where I should have had examinations. You are just busy and caught up. (You think) I feel good so why go? But that's not a good thing to do. That's why it is so important really to take care of yourself. It is one time out of the year. Get your mammogram and do the right things. And get this thing under control.
The support has been unbelievable. The e-mails, the cards, the flowers, other peoples stories. (For someone to say) 'I'm a survivor,' it is so uplifting and so encouraging and inspiring.
You never know what people are going through until you walk that walk. And I have just been blown away by the things that you go through. And this is stage one, I'm not talking about people that go through chemotherapy, stage four. I have no clue (about what those people are going through) but I wouldn't wish it on anyone. It's scary.
There's no breast cancer in my family. Matter of fact, the risk factors that were there, I think I had one. I wouldn't think I would have it. You think it just happens to somebody else. It is just so random, but you just don't know. Cause I'm pretty healthy, for the most part. So, that's the biggest message, take time time out. When your priority is your kids, if you don't have your health... You know, you have to get that taken care of first.
Jeff Hamilton, the men's (basketball) coach, came in that day I told him... and I'll never forget this it was great. He said 'Robin, we need to pull out the pink because if anybody can get through this I know you can.' It was really something I needed to hear. Because it was (thinking) 'what are we going to do.'
I knew stage one was a good thing but when you hear the words breast cancer... And my first thought was how am I going to tell Ali?
But when he said that I thought... We have to do something about it. And that's when I thought, let's get it out in the open. Let's get the pink out. Let's do it big. I hope this place is packed and everybody's got pink on.
It would not be only inspiration to me but others who are going through this. We have all been effected by breast cancer, we know someone. So let's help them know that we are behind them.
My players have been great. They'll text (message) me and ask me how I'm doing. Gregg just learned how to text the other day in the hospital.
The support is inspiration and makes you want to get out there and help someone else, because you know what they are going through. And it is a tough time.
So if I can help someone else and be encouraging to them, let's do it. So that our children's children don't have to worry about it and they find a cure.
I was scared to death to tell Ali. She's ten and the whole time I was thinking 'how do you say this?' And I didn't want her to be scared... I told her I have a good cancer, a good type of cancer. And her first words were 'people die from that Mommy.' But I said, 'it is just a little tiny bit and they'll take it out. Everything is going to fine.' That day was just absolutely horrible.
Q: How are things different now, or are they different, when you walk into the classroom or onto the basketball court? Do you carry it with you everywhere you go, thinking about it?
A:Yea, I do. It has not taken over me but it has definitely changed me.
Q: A very successful women's basketball coach and breast cancer victim, Kay Yow, said that basketball was her escape for a few hours each day. Can you relate to her statement?
A: Absolutely... for those two hours, that is my sanctuary.
Q: I know that your faith and your family are the most important priorities in your life. From the outside looking in, it really seems you have found a great balance. How do you manage it all?
A: Balance is the key word. Especially when I had Ali, things started to change. Your perspective. A win or a loss doesn't seem to be so life or death.
I use to get kind of upset when people use to say 'it's just a game.' But the more I'm in it, (I realize) it's a game. Because life is the bigger game and that's what's important.
For that 40 minutes it is the most important thing. And even for spectators, they can for two hours forget about their health issues, they can forget about their bad relationships. And we can for two hours entertain people.
When it's over, (and you're with) the people that you love, you don't want to be upset because you lost. You don't want that interfere with the people that you love. I think that having children gives us a much better perspective.
One game, I'll never forget this, after a loss, a bad loss, Ali comes in, I don't remember how old she was, but she said "mommy can we go home and watch Nemo." She didn't care, she didn't have a clue.
I love that because that's perspective. Now it's family time, it's out time together. And what happened 40 minutes ago, I don't want that to affect my attitude toward them.
It just goes so fast, kids grow up. I don't want them to remember me as the coach. I want them to remember me as the mom.
God has blessed us with healthy children and He has worked a lot of that out. So you just have to have faith that all that stuff is taken care of.
Every minute that we have, I mean we have no social life, it's just our family, you know, our kids.
My two sisters are close. My dad and Gregg's dad and their wives are close. And they even travel with us sometimes. They have been a huge help.
And being from this area makes a big difference too because we have a lot of people who give us support.
We're with our children. I mean, if we're not at basketball or school, then we're with our children. There are very few times that we've even been out to dinner, just the two of us, and had somebody watch them. I can't even really think of a time.
We just had our 25th wedding anniversary and this was the first year we didn't play or we weren't recruiting. But I had (to have surgery) and... it was just crummy.
Q: Congratulations on the anniversary...
A: Yea, that's huge. And we were really looking forward to it.
My wish was, you know, I hope we have another 25 more, but we are not in this condition. He doesn't have a cystoscopy and stints in his bladder and I don't have to have my sister give me a sponge bath on Christmas Eve. You know.
I hope we have 25 more, great years together with our kids. That's the biggest wish of all, is just being together. I don't even know where that question started...
Q: It turned out great.